Jackie Ormes, African American Woman Cartoonist

Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Born Zelda Mavin Jackson in Pittsburgh in 1911 and raised in Monongahela, Washington County, Jackie Ormes was the first African American woman cartoonist. At the height of her career, her cartoons and comics reached more than a million readers across the nation through the black press. When the Jim Crow era was in full swing and racial stereotypes were prevalent, Ormes broke down barriers of racial misconception by depicting her African American characters as upper middle-class, educated, well-spoken and fashion-conscious. Ormes was self-taught and published her first cartoons in Monongahela High School yearbooks.

In 1936, now married to Earl Clark Ormes, she began working for the weekly black press newspaper Pittsburgh Courier as a proofreader and sometime writer. But she had a desire “to draw and to make people laugh,” as she later explained. By 1937 she was producing a nationally distributed comic strip for the Courier titled Torchy Brown in ‘Dixie to Harlem.’ Her Torchy character depicted the humorous adventures of a Southern farm girl who moves to Harlem and becomes a star at the Cotton Club.

The Ormeses moved to Chicago in 1942, and Jackie began occasional writing for the Chicago Defender, a leading African American newspaper. For a few months in 1945, her single-panel cartoon Candy, about a beautiful, wisecracking housemaid, ran in the paper. The same year she launched her longest-running cartoon, Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, which ran until 1956 in the Pittsburgh Courier. It featured two sisters: Ginger, a beautiful, well-dressed young woman, and Patty-Jo, a precocious little girl with opinions about everything from domestic life to headline topics such as taxes and McCarthyism. In 1947 Ormes designed a doll based on Patty-Jo. The dolls were produced by the Terri Lee doll company for two years and now have become desirable collectors’ items.

 

Jackie Ormes at work. Courtesy Nancy Goldstein

Ormes revived her Torchy Brown character in a 1950-54 full-color comic strip, Torchy in Heartbeats, again in the Courier. Through Torchy’s bold dialogue and actions, Ormes addressed serious and controversial subjects, such as environmental pollution, racism, politics, inequity in education and violence against women. It was the Cold War era, and because she had friends in the Communist Party, she was investigated by the FBI for several years. Ironically, questions about the political views of her outspoken cartoon characters were absent from the FBI report.

After Ormes retired in 1956 she continued painting and became a doll collector. She died in Chicago in December 1985.

In 2014 Jackie Ormes was inducted posthumously into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. The Ormes Society, established in 2007 and named after her, supports black female cartoonists and promotes the inclusion of black women in comics and animation. The Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Jackie Ormes was dedicated in October 2016 in her hometown of Monongahela.

 

The author and editor thank Nancy Goldstein, author of Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist (University of Michigan Press, 2008), for providing information for this article.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.